The university commencement speech, that cliché-ridden rite of spring in which some notable picks up an honorary degree and offers a smattering of wisdom to anxious grads ("and as you go forth, remember that you are all works in progress") is not an easy act to pull off these days.
In the dismal aftermath of a global economic meltdown, exhorting newly minted grads who can't find a job anywhere to "follow your passion" could be seen as insultingly pie in the sky. Even Barack Obama, that most gifted of speakers, sounded a little boilerplate in one recent address at Arizona State University.
As Frank Bruni recently noted in The New York Times, celebrity speakers this year have tried to offer comfort by dredging up their own horror stories about graduating into earlier recessions or even "simply miserable personal stories from their youth." Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's chief of staff, for example, apparently went on at two universities about how he survived boyhood gangrene. Making, say, six months without a job seem not so bad.
In this Internet age, maybe the traditional commencement speech itself has run its course.
What if we changed it up to make it more relevant to the current generation of twentysomethings?
Perhaps there could be a snappy Q and A session on stage with four notables revealing how they got from university to success.
Or what about Twittering a commencement address? Let me see, what prosaic words of Twisdom could fit into the 140 character limit? "Get a job, get a life, get a grip. And never-ever-run a credit card balance. Good luck!"
Or for something more poetic, you can't beat Henry David Thoreau's "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined." Especially if you have room to add: "And don't forget to work your parents' connections."
I heard a few speeches myself last week as I sat in a tent on the beautiful campus of McGill University, eagerly waiting for my daughter to graduate.
Among the speakers were McGill University chancellor Dick Pound, who did unfortunately call the grads "works in progress" and in a deadly monotone to boot, and Professor Christopher Manfredi, dean of arts, who apologized for not being a celebrity before delivering an encouraging and thoughtful defence of the value of an arts degree.
The best moment - other than seeing my daughter flash a huge smile as she clutched her degree - was a fresh and funny valedictory address by McGill arts graduate Katherine McCurdy, who mocked the empty profundities of the commencement speech itself: "By this point, each of you has donned the furry silk hood of maturity and crossed the elevated platform of enlightenment to grasp the shiny, embossed paper of success, before returning across the worn plywood floor of ambivalence to sit upon the hard folding chair of uncertainty."
Ms. McCurdy then cleverly pleaded to her audience: "I hope to work for you some day. So please hire me."
The thing is, unless it's Springsteen or Bono giving the talk, for most students, it's the transcendent moment of crossing the stage that matters (okay, as well as the party after), not the speeches. "I kind of zoned out," said one young woman. And when I asked a slightly older university grad, two years after the fact, who spoke at his convocation, he said vaguely, "some rich lady."
So who are commencement speeches for? If you look around the room you will see it's the parents who are rapt, either listening for a clue as to what to actually say to their anxiety-ridden grad once the party's over and the writing of the résumé looms, or nostalgically reliving their own graduation.
This moment is one of the most sweetly celebratory ones left in the child-rearing process. It's not like anything else to come - a wedding, say, which would involve a whole other family, not to mention thousands of dollars spent on caterers. In this case, the thousands have already been spent and most boomer parents are salivating after the moment they can actually say about their kids: "They're off the payroll!"
No matter how fraught the times, graduation is still a richly jubilant moment. They did it - our kids stuck with it and checked off the first major milestone of adulthood. Whatever the future, it's theirs to craft. Cue the sigh of relief.
So there's actually a timeless quality to a university graduation. Nothing has changed about them in eons, and maybe nothing will, Twitter be damned. Commencement speeches are just part of the package, not "works in progress," like those grads, but traditions, to be briefly commented upon at the family dinner before heading off to the real party.
In my daughter's case, hordes of her friends ended up at a bar with a mechanical bull. Amid great hilarity (and no doubt libation) they all rode the bull, they all fell off. And they lived to tell the tale - and that is as good a start as any to the rest of their lives.
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